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Banning the Vote

All across the country, college students are being denied the right to vote in their adopted hometowns -- effectively banning them from local politics.
 
 
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If only students would go out and vote.

Except their vote isn't welcome in Brunswick, Maine. Or in Prairie View, Texas. Or, as a matter of fact, in Utica, New York. All of these college towns -- and many others -- have local statutes that limit students from establishing residency and registering to vote.

Their vote is certainly not welcome in Williamsburg, Virginia, home to the College of William and Mary, where the city council has passed anti-student laws, blocked students from becoming residents, restricted students from registering to vote, and thwarted any effort made by students to change the discriminatory policies by running for office.

Among other things, the city council passed "owner occupancy" agreements on housing, making it increasingly difficult for students to find housing near campus, and evicted some students from their homes mid-semester for violating the archaic "three-to-a-house rule" -- no more than three unrelated people can live together in a house in Williamsburg.

So when three of the five seats on the city council were up for grabs in the spring of 2003, four students -- Serene Alami, Robert Forrest, Seth Saunders, and Luther Lowe, tired of not being able to voice their concerns in their town -- announced their candidacy. A week later, all four students received voter registration denials. The grounds? They didn't qualify as residents of Williamsburg.

Even though students used to be able to register to vote in Williamsburg using their dorm address, the registrar had begun to require students to fill out a tricky two-page questionnaire to determine residency, asking such questions as: Where is your car registered? Are you a dependent on your parent's tax return? What community activities are you involved in? (The questionnaire specified church.)

Using the results of the questionnaire, the Williamsburg registrar determined some students were ineligible to register to vote in Williamsburg, effectively banning them from participating in local politics.

Although the 26th Amendment guarantees students the right to vote and a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that students can vote where they attend school if they establish residency, it remains unclear what constitutes residency. Local election boards have been able to fill in the gaps, and under the Virginia Constitution, eligible voters must have a physical abode in a town with the intent to live there for an unlimited time.

"Because the law is so ambiguous, it leaves the decisions up to people who aren't legal experts about who has the right to vote," says Serene Alami, one of the four students who attempted to run for city council.

Both Lowe and Alami, with the help of the Virginia ACLU, challenged their denials, first in federal court, and then, when the case was sent back, in the circuit court. The judge overturned Lowe's denial because, although he is originally from Arkansas, he had committed to six years with the Virginia National Guard. Alami's registration denial, however, was upheld, with her in-state status and her attempt to run for a four-year seat on the city council not enough to prove she planned to live in Williamsburg for an "unlimited time."

"Students shouldn't have to join the National Guard to vote. It doesn't make sense for Serene to vote for the school board in Roanoke, where her parents live," Lowe says. "It makes sense for her to vote where the issues affect her most -- where we need crosswalks and get parking tickets. We should be able to vote where we have a direct stake in what's happening."

"Here I am trying to do what a good citizen should do -- voting and running for office to try to change things -- and somebody tells me I can't," Alami says.

vote buttonAlong with appealing her case, which is still pending, Alami put her energy into helping Lowe gain the 125 signatures needed to get him on the city council ballot. Only after she collected some of the signatures was she told by the city council that non-residents cannot collect signatures. The council only deemed 124 signatures "considerable," and Lowe was unable to get his name on the ballot.

"It just further illustrated how ludicrous this was and showed how they are actively working to ensure that students don't have a voice in the community," Lowe said.

Seth Saunders was also denied the right to run for city council in Williamsburg, and Rob Forrest quit school, moved off campus, sold his car, and got a local job in order to qualify for residency and run for a seat. He was not elected.

"It's frustrating to think that people habitually complain about youth being apathetic, but any effort made by youth to change that is shot down," Alami says. "And it's not just happening in Virginia."

Don't Rock the (V)Boat

It's happening all over the country. Despite the fact that students live in their college towns eight months of the year for four to five years and are counted by the U.S. census in their college towns, the practice of intimidating and harassing young voters is spreading to various college towns like a flu virus in a campus dorm -- from claiming voting will affect students' financial aid, to giving them lengthy questionnaires, to asking them to provide driver's licenses.

"If you have a university town that bars students from voting, you are effectively raising the voting age in that town," says Peter Maybarduk, cofounder of the voting rights organization Your Williamsburg.

Student disenfranchisement happened at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where the registrar turned students away after she asked misleading residency questions, and in other towns in Maine, including Bar Harbor, Gorham, Farmington and Standish.

Damien Cave's recent Rolling Stone article, " Mock the Vote," highlighted that it's also happened at Hamilton College in Utica, New York, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, in Arkansas at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, and at the University of New Hampshire.

It also happened at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, where the district attorney intimidated students from voting by warning that a 10-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine would be issued to anyone caught "illegally voting." The students have since settled a lawsuit with Kitzman, who issued a public apology. Prairie View A&M was the site of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow students to vote where they attend school after black students were banned from voting 25 years ago.

"I don't know how this compares to women's suffrage or the Civil Rights movement," Alami says. "But I do know it's a systematic denial of a group of people their constitutional rights."

It isn't that students are being denied the right to vote outright -- they still have the option of voting by absentee ballot in their hometowns. But voting by absentee ballot isn't always a sufficient solution.

"It requires a lot of forethought, which many Americans, not just students, don't contemplate," Maybarduk says. "Beyond that, it still prevents them from voting on the issues that affect them where they live. It's much more difficult for students to stay up to speed on issues, and impossible to serve on commissions or introduce a ballot initiative. It goes against the meaning of teaching civic engagement in college."

A study titled "Democracy and College Student Voting," published by the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Salisbury College in 2001 and updated again this year, examines the effects of restrictive residency requirements for college students.

"The key question for both of these studies is, are there different residential barriers for students than other voters?" says Dr. Michael O'Loughlin, associate professor of Political Science at Salisbury and co-author of the study.

The study concluded that 21 states maintain unfair restrictive laws and practices with regard to college students, playing a detrimental role in youth voter turnout.

"If students have unusually high residential barriers to overcome, it's just one more added thing that will lower voter turnout," O'Loughlin says.

Taking Over the Town

Erecting these barriers to voting isn't always a conscious choice; some registrars simply don't know the law and are as confused as college students when it comes to residency regulations.

Others, however, are motivated to stop college students from voting because of a fear that they will "take over the town." In Williamsburg, for example, over half the population are college students, making the threat plausible.

"If you think about it, in a small town, a block of 300 or 400 voters could change the character of the city council or the mayor's office," O'Loughlin says.

That's what happened in New Paltz, New York, where 26-year-old Jason West was elected mayor and recently started marrying gay couples, causing some New Yorkers to shudder. West campaigned strongly on New Paltz's State University of New York campus, appealing to young voters who ousted the town's 16-year mayor.

Another argument used to justify banning students from voting in college towns is their transient lifestyle -- that they'll simply move away in four years, leaving behind the polices they help put in place. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46% of Americans moved between 1995 and 2000; in other words, nearly half of the American public are as transient as college students. What's more, many states allow homeless people to vote and Virginia allows the homeless to vote "wherever they lay their head at night."

These flimsy excuses only help to discourage political participation in a country where the youth vote is already alarmingly low.

"If voters get rebuffed the first time they go vote, they might just say, 'The heck with it,'" says Kent Willis, associate director of the Voting Rights Project of the ACLU. "When election officials tell a student who is claimed as a dependent on his dad's taxes but has never lived with his dad, to go vote where his dad lives, students know they are being jerked around."

Yet some people see this type of disenfranchisement doing just the opposite of discouraging voters.

"It sends a message that there are people who care enough about young people voting to prevent it from happening," says Hans Reimer, Washington director of Rock the Vote. "It has an empowering effect -- if you don't want me to vote, that's exactly what I'm going to do."

It isn't just local elections that are a concern. The 2004 presidential elections loom large in people's minds.

"This election is going to be so close," says Reimer. "Because of that, the pressure to disenfranchise voters will be heightened. We can see the scenarios happening where local election boards, often not operating in the best interest of democracy, decide for partisan reasons to block votes."

I Want My Democracy

Take Action with Rock the Vote:

Sign a Web Petition to Your Secretary of State

Make Change on Your Campus

Students and voting rights organizations aren't taking their chances, and are pouring time and resources into fighting young voter disenfranchisement.

Rock the Vote is circulating a petition against voter suppression to send to the secretaries of state in all 50 states, asking for a detailed game plan to tackle the problem by July. They're also forming a coalition with organizations such as National Voice, Just Democracy, One Student, One Vote, and the New Voters Project to help give the issue national attention.

The Election Assistance Commission, in charge of administering the slippery Help America Vote Act -- legislation that will require voters to present valid I.D.s at the polls -- says they are dispensing $750,000 into a program dedicated to engaging college students in the electoral process ("If you can think of a hip hop name or a Beyonce name for the program, let me know," says Chairman DeForester B. Soaries Jr.)

Luther Lowe from William and Mary is in the process of creating a national organization called Suffrage Now to act as a watchdog for student voting rights, and Peter Maybarduk recently created a listserv called Student Vote, where students can post specific cases of voter disenfranchisement at studentvote@lists.riseup.net.

Finally, on Tuesday, May 11, the 30 Somethings Working Group, a group of 14 Democratic members of the House of Representatives under the age of 40, took to the House floor to talk about young voter suppression. Students can e-mail the group with incidents of voter suppression at 30SomethingDems@mail.house.gov.

With all this action, students are showing that they're not just going out to vote, they're going out to change the country.

"This needs to be an issue that is part of the public discourse and people need to realize that this is a constitutional problem that needs to be resolved," Lowe said. "If we can do this, we can really change the makeup of local governments across the United States."

Megan Tady is a 24-year-old freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.